October 8, 2004

Alumni continue U of C Nobel prize tradition

Two more U of C alumni have joined the ranks of the 70-plus Nobel laureates affiliated with the University.

Frank Wilczek, who attended the College and earned his S.B. in Mathematics in 1970, and who later served as a University trustee from 1998 to 2003, received the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday. Wednesday morning Irwin Rose--who completed both his undergraduate and graduate studies at the University--earned the 2004 Chemistry Prize. Rose obtained his S.B. in chemistry and biochemistry in 1948 and his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1952.

Currently the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, Wilczek shared his prize with David Gross of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and H. David Politzer of Cal Tech.  The Nobel Committee awarded them the prize for their work on asymptotic freedom.  This is the concept by which quarks, sub-subatomic particles, exert a weaker force on each other as they move closer together.  Quarks compose the protons and neutrons in an atom's nucleus, and the so-called "strong force" that occurs between these particles is the main force acting inside the nucleus.

Wilczek and his co-recipients discovered and described that as these quarks become very close together, the forces between them become so minute they start behaving as free particles.  They have "brought physics one step closer to fulfilling a grand dream, to formulate a unified theory [...] for everything," according to a statement from the Nobel Foundation.

His coworkers have nothing but praise for Wilczek. Tom Rosenbaum, the vice president for research at Argonne National Laboratories, describes Wilczek as "a great physicist, whose insights […] have influenced the discipline broadly."  Rosenbaum went on to praise Wilczek for "generously providing time and advice to his alma mater" as a trustee.

"It was really exciting to have him as a student," said Peter Freund, professor emeritus in the physics department. As an undergraduate, Wilczek attended a high-level course Freund taught on particle physics, which was designed for advanced graduate students. "At every lecture Frank would ask one question that was absolutely brilliant. I would digress for 15 minutes on it!" recalled Freund.

The other University-affiliated laureate, Irwin Rose, split the Chemistry Prize with Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, both of the Technion—Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. The three were awarded the Nobel for their study of ubiquitin, a molecule that attaches to proteins in the cell and marks the proteins for destruction.  The three worked against the grain with their research in the early 1980s, when most biochemists sought to unravel the mysteries of protein construction.

The work of Rose and his colleagues has led to a better understanding of "how the cell controls a number of central processes by breaking down certain proteins and not others," according to a press release from the Nobel Foundation.  When the breakdown of proteins does not proceed normally, certain diseases such as cervical cancer and cystic fibrosis may result.  Their work "offers an opportunity to develop drugs against these diseases and others," the same Nobel statement read.

Rose is currently a specialist in the department of physiology and biophysics at the University of California, Irvine.

Wilczek and Rose join a long line of Nobel winners with roots in the University.  As of this week, 77 laureates have been students, professors, researchers, or people otherwise connected with the University.

This has often been a point of pride, with Chicago boasting that it has more Nobel laureates than any school in the U.S.  These 70-plus recipients are immortalized on a popular University T-shirt.  Some call it our way of sticking our tongue out at the Ivies.

"When you have a lot of Nobel laureates, it means two things: you're attracting good students and you're picking the right faculty. Those are two things to be very proud of," said Gary Becker, professor of economics and Nobel Prize winner. "[U of C] has a very rich culture. We had the first American to win the Nobel Prize," he pointed out.

But some wonder whether we should be so quick to excite ourselves at the prospect of another medal. James Heckman, the Henry Schultz distinguished service professor in the department of economics, himself a Nobel recipient, said: "[Institutions are] too ready to take credit for anybody who is visiting or just flying over the university."

Although he points out that Chicago is not the only school guilty of this, he criticizes it for putting visiting professors on its Nobel T-shirt.

He also contends that the Nobel should not be a benchmark for measuring the greatness of a university.  "The true test of the University is the depth of work done here," which is remarkable, he said.  Implying that the Nobel Prize is the only merit award of significance is "like saying Harvard is the only good school.  It's not."